Next Best Thing to Face-to-Face

I invest many hours and hopes in online communication.  My guess is that you do, too.  Virtual connections open any-time and any-where networks for thinking and action.  They create opportunities for creative engagement with people around the world. They stretch our personal and professional networks into radically new frontiers. Just in the last few weeks we:

  • Graduated our first cohort from the blended learning HSD Professional certification
  • Conducted online coaching for government consultants in Ottawa
  • Planned a training program in Helsinki from my office in Circle Pines, MN, US
  • Explored a relationship for systemic change in Honolulu
  • Designed a strategic transformation session for an NGO’s executive retreat in Bulgaria
  • Convened an Education Advisory Council of individuals from across the US to accelerate Adaptive Action for school reform
  • Sent an email to Royce (who was sitting in the next room) to add an item to our staff meeting agenda

computerNone of this would be possible without online communication tools, but no relationship depends solely on virtual connections.  All of our activities and relationships are built on foundations of person-to-person, face-to-face contact.  At the same time, they all depend on one or more forms of electronic communication.  Like most of the work we do, communication methods are not about “naughty or nice.”  Sometimes face-to-face is best, and sometimes online is more fit to purpose. When we redesigned our certification training to go online last year, we retained a three-day face-to-face opening session called Patterns and Possibilities. While people are together they build personal networks, practice foundational principles, and get comfortable with our online learning ecology.  With this foundation, they move into four months of online learning activities to encounter, apply, and extend their learning. 

In these times of complex challenges and complicated communication media, two questions always drive our work:  How can we be proficient in many different media?  How can we choose the medium that is most fit to a particular time, place, and purpose?  Both of these questions inform how we communicate with our partners around the corner and around the world. 

Human systems dynamics helps us make good choices about when and how to take connections online. Based on what we know about the dynamics of self-organizing human systems, communication tools need to be constraining enough to support productive work and still open enough to allow creative individual contributions. Here are some questions we use to guide our choices of communication media.  

What are the containers?

  • Do the players know each other?  Identity is a key container for any interaction. If the individuals are well known to each other, if the group has created a shared identity, then online communications can be efficient and satisfying. If the individuals are unfamiliar, then face-to-face engagement can help set the stage.  If online is the only option, then the meeting design should explicitly include activities that help people introduce themselves and help the group surface and harvest similarities that support group identity.
  • How many people will attend?  The number of interactions increases exponentially as new members are added to a group. A small number can have rich interactions online, but the dynamics in a larger number tend to break down into “hub and spoke” interactions. One or two people dominate the airwaves, and others are forced to into silence. That is why our HSD webinars give all participants access to the chat feature and encourage them to type at will.

  • How variable is the membership of the group? A client used to talk about having “meetings at a bus stop.”  He never knew who would show up, how prepared they’d be, or who would have to leave the meeting early. Sometimes groups are required to function with this kind of inconsistency and discontinuity of membership. Face-to-face relationships can provide a kind of stability, even when a group is disrupted in this way. If online engagement is the only option with such a leaky container, ritual and explicit history of the group can help establish a space where people can come and go at will.

What are the differences?

  • What are the group’s communication habits? Technology will not fix bad communication patterns. In fact, it will often make them worse by speeding up negative messages and excluding neutral messages that might buffer rather than irritate. As you design online interactions, consider the fault lines in the current communication patterns. Repair them if you can before going online.  If repair isn’t possible, design to minimize friction. Even with the best design, be prepared to see and respond to turbulence as it emerges.
  • How subtle and ambiguous is the information?  Face-to-face communication allows for many different information pathways. All the senses are engaged. Sight, sound, smell, touch, even taste shape the dynamics of in-person engagements.  Even the best online technology misses some of these, and often sound is the only one that survives. Good design can fill in some of the blanks, though.  Handouts distributed ahead of time, check-in questions rich in sensory data, pauses for reflection, and getting all voices in the room can help bring more dimensions into an otherwise flat teleconference.
  • What is the level of meaningful and relevant disagreement?  Disagreement can be a challenge to manage, even in a face-to-face meeting, and unless it is managed well, disagreement can kill an online meeting entirely. To encourage constructive disagreement, make sure every perspective is heard. Distribute questions in advance to help people prepare.  Invite round-robin responses where each person speaks uninterrupted.  Reflect and repeat what others say without reframing. Don’t try to surface disagreement and push to consensus in the same meeting.  Collect perspectives in one, engage in reflection and dialogue between, then come to the next call with co-created alternatives.

What are the exchanges?

  • What is the purpose of the dialogue?  Some kinds of dialogue benefit from slow pacing and intervals of silence.  These are great candidates for online engagement.  Other dialogues thrive on fast-paced give and take with people talking over each other and side conversations breaking out, and face-to-face engagement can be fun and fruitful. The most effective dialogue designs take these patterns into consideration and fit the medium to the message.
  • How explicit and replicable should the messages be?  One of our associates uses an online whiteboard feature to have doodle dialogues with distant partners.  Without speaking, the participants type or make marks on the space, initiating ideas or responding to each other.  This creative choice of medium allows an almost-face-to-face feeling for his meetings.  What media are available in your online venues?  How can you use them to open multi-track communications?
  • What direction should the information flow?  We design online communications that support one to many (lecture), one to one (coaching calls), many to one (surveys, email, and private chat), and many to many (forums, online discussions, and public chats).  Some involve audio only, others include video or projection. Each medium is designed to be fit to purpose. What is the information that needs to be exchanged? So what are the technical options and constraints?  Now what design will be most effective and efficient?

All of these “what” questions uncover the current constraints and requirements for the communication. Our design process continues with:

So what conditions (containers, differences, exchanges) are familiar and comfortable for the group?  So what is working well, and what might shift the pattern toward more clarity or more creative diversity?

Now what choices can we make to set conditions for dialogue that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and emerging networks of professionals, clients, and colleagues?  

These questions won’t solve all your virtual communications challenges. They certainly won’t answer themselves, but they will help you and your team see patterns in your own communications, understand your virtual communication needs, and design conditions for your most productive and satisfying online engagements.  

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